Calling Bullshit

27th August 2020

Cheery Friday Greetings to our Learning How to Learners!

Book of the Month

Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World, by Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West. This very readable book describes how easy it is for journalists, politicians, companies, and yes, even researchers themselves to bullshit people.  As Bergstrom and West note: “Perhaps the most important principle in bullshit studies is Brandolini’s principle. Coined by Italian software engineer Alberto Brandolini in 2014, it states: ‘The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than [that needed] to produce it.’ Producing bullshit is a lot less work than cleaning it up. It is also a lot simpler and cheaper to do. A few years before Brandolini formulated his principle, Italian blogger Uriel Fanelli had already noted that, loosely translated, ‘an idiot can create more bullshit than you could ever hope to refute.’ 

We also like this book because it provides fresh perspectives on the black box of artificial intelligence algorithms; how to understand conditional probability in simple, visual ways; how p-hacking leads to a misleading research landscape; and why even superb scientists can publish irreproducible results. This is an important book that we feel is destined to become a classic. Also good for audio listening.

A New Campus Diary Podcast Series from EdSurge

Fall 2020 will bring the first full college term of the COVID-19 pandemic, and no one knows quite what to expect. New social distancing rules have been issued for students—and already broken. How will it all work out?The indefatigable Jeff Young from EdSurge has started a new podcast series that features the audio diaries of professors and students to follow campus life during this unprecedented pandemic semester. Here’s the first episode.

“Groupiness” in Social Interactions

This article describes research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Rachel Kranton and colleagues related to people’s tendencies to think like and identify with a group—very relevant to today’s educational trends related to cooperative learning.  This topic has long been a fascinating one for Barb, sparked by Donna Musil’s BRATS: Our Journey Home, a documentary about the apparent different ways of thinking of some children who grow up moving all the time. Barb moved every year or two during most of her formative years because her father was in the Air Force.  Ultimately, she grew more comfortable with the discomfort of never quite being like her classmates.  When she moved from rural Texas to tony Malibu, for example, she didn’t look right (she wore the wrong jeans), she didn’t sound right (thick Texas twang), and ultimately she didn’t think right, at least according to the ruling cliques of middle school. 

Today, Barb is sometimes surprised by how people will reach judgments by appealing, not to facts, but to the idea that, “why, everybody thinks that way!” This is notwithstanding the fact that some despicable social movements of the past were spurred by the fact that nearly everybody thought in the same problematic way. Kranton’s research is just the beginning of the deeper work that’s needed involving groupthink and concepts outlined in Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer. Barb can’t help but wonder, can formative experiences during youth, including experiences in the educational system, also play a role?

The Value of Online Learning in Helping You Get a New Job

One of Barb’s former face-to-face engineering students wrote to say “Welllll…after completing learning how to learn, I was continually asking myself if I had become obsessed or “addicted” to the MOOCs! Ha, ha, ha. The hardest part was choosing a path and deciding how to chain them together for a complete and even greater experience.

“And it seems like I managed to get it at least kinda right! I started my new job last week and one of my interviewers let me know that what sealed the deal for me were the courses I had taken during my time off.

“Pretty cool!”

That’s all for this week. Have a happy week in Learning How to Learn!

Barb, Terry, and the entire Learning How to Learn team

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